Philomena asks the unanswerable question of how far would we go to find the truth about something if we might not like the answer? The new drama from sure-handed director Stephen Frears discovers that sometimes the truth might be best, however painful. And, in Philomena, the truth is unbearably painful.
Philomena is based on the nonfiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, played here by co-screenwriter Steve Coogan. Judi Dench plays Lee, and the actress remains a marvel, making us believe she is a well-meaning yet simple-minded Irish woman.
Frears delicately unfolds his story, chronicling the pivotal events in the life of young, unmarried Philomena (played in her younger years by Sophie Kennedy Clark), who becomes pregnant and has her baby in an Irish convent that forces the women to remain and work to pay off their “debt.”
Like the other women, Philomena sees her boy once a day — that is, until the day he is whisked away for adoption, never to be seen by her again.
Philomena more or less begins when the adult Philomena (Dench) tells her story to Sixsmith, a former journalist and a recently disgraced political adviser. He contracts with a newspaper for the telling of her story, thereby beginning the odyssey of an unlikely duo trying to track down a boy who left Ireland 50 years before.
Frears relentlessly bangs away at the Catholic bureaucracy and small-mindedness that thwarted Philomena as she spent a lifetime struggling to find out what happened to her son. Later in the search, when the duo travels to the United States, Frears changes his target to Reagan-era Republicans.
But Frears also calls attention to the ironic contrast between Philomena’s ability to forgive, due to her religious beliefs, and the inability of the secular Sixsmith. Despite its gloomy theme and feeling of foreboding, Philomena nevertheless retains abundant moments of welcomed humor, usually delivered by comic master Coogan.
At one point in the middle of the quest, Sixsmith discusses the story with his newspaper editor.
She advises him that his story would be best if it had either an extremely happy ending, or a very sad one
But, like most things, like life, Philomena is a bittersweet experience.
Rated R, 98 minutes.